On a recent Island winery tour, I was excited and yet baffled to find one of the Cowichan Valley vineyards, Venturi-Schulze, producing an incredible “Traditional” balsamic vinegar, using ancient Italian methods and aging longer than most wines. How could we have not known about this? And how would I share it with my friends back in Alberta? I have tasted many top quality imported balsamic vinegars over the years, and these days foodies proudly display bottles of various flavoured balsamics on their kitchen counters. But after listening to Michelle Schulze explain the difference between traditional production methods and the more common commercial methods, I realize it is like comparing apples to oranges.
“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) is a type of balsamic vinegar produced in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. Unlike commercially produced Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (BVM), Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) is produced from cooked grape must, aged at least 9 years, and protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system.” Source: Wikipedia
This elixir is a far cry from what we generally know as balsamic vinegar, and most of us have never had the opportunity to try it. Prices for imported Tradizionale start at around $100 for a small bottle and rise quickly from there. It is also not meant to imply that commercially produced balsamic vinegar is an inferior product – it is just different. It is produced using a much quicker method, using strong wine vinegar, grape juice (must), and colourings such as caramel. The grape juice can be boiled down to a higher concentration or used as is. Some of the better products are aged in barrels, but no fermentation or bacterial actions take place.
“L’Aceto Balsamico Modenese”, a book co-authored in 1970 by Giuseppe Polacci and the Consorteria dell’Aceto Balsamico (the official regulatory body), stated that Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) could only be produced in the province of Modena. It was determined that only the locally grown Trebbiano grapes would work, and the typical weather pattern that was critical to the production could not be duplicated elsewhere. Raised in the province of Modena, and determined to prove them wrong, Giordano Venturi followed the ancient 1862 production method as printed by Polacci, to develop his own version of the Balsamic using primarily Madeleine Sylvaner grapes. These are grown solely for the purpose of making vinegar, and while the result is not quite as dense as the Modenese TBV, it is slightly fruitier and more freshly aromatic.
The vinegar is produced using a solera system, where a group of casks or barrels are used in series. The containers can be different woods and capacities, with a common series including 5 barrels – 20, 25, 30, 40 and 50 litres in size. After a suitable period of time, a small amount of vinegar is removed from the smallest barrel each year. To replace it and to compensate for additional evaporation, it is filled from the next largest cask, which is topped up from the next and repeated through all the barrels until the largest is filled with freshly boiled must. Vinegar is bottled only from the head barrel, the smallest and oldest.
Giordano first began his quest in 1970, starting the original family barrel from an ancient culture directly from his hometown in Modena. The first crop was perfected in 1990, and to this day production continues to follow the ancient, additive free practices using dozens of natural microorganisms in the fermentation process. The Venturi-Schulze balsamic vinegar is fruity and freshly aromatic, complex and vibrant, and reflects the unique purity of the grapes grown. It is also the only traditionally produced balsamic vinegar in North America. Over 100 barrels of cherry, chestnut, acacia, ash, and oak, beginning with the 1990 crop, now age alongside five additional series of larger casks and tanks.
Further information about the Venturi Schulze Vineyards can be found on their website, and their balsamic vinegar will soon be available through the online store of Westcoast Gourmet Provisions. This recent CBC News interview with Giordano and Marilyn Venturi is well worth listening to, as they explain in their own words how this truly unique product has come to be here on Vancouver Island.
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